ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Wednesday that federal land managers will be working to finalize a process for considering whether to accept a donation of land that will allow public access to a landlocked parcel of federally protected wilderness in northern New Mexico.
Zinke’s announcement comes nearly two weeks after he toured the area with members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation and local officials.
Established nearly a decade ago through congressional action, the 16,000-acre (6,475-hectare) Sabinoso Wilderness is surrounded by private property. It is home to rugged canyons, mesas topped with pinon and juniper trees and wildlife that include deer, elk, mountain lions and turkey.
If approved, the donation of an adjacent parcel of ranch land will allow for Sabinoso to be accessed without trespassing.
Zinke said expanding access to hunting, fishing and recreation on federal lands is a top priority.
“I originally had concerns about adding more wilderness-designated area, however after hiking and riding the land it was clear that access would only be improved if the department accepted the land and maintained the existing roadways,” he said in a statement.
The Interior Department described the area as some of the most pristine elk habitat in the nation, saying that sportsmen from around the world have expressed an interest in accessing the area.
New Mexico’s congressional delegates on Wednesday called the land deal a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to open up Sabinoso to the public.
“Enabling access to this wilderness is something that many New Mexicans have worked toward for years,” said U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico.
The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees Sabinoso, tried unsuccessfully for years to get landowners to allow public access through their properties by road or trail. Public access first inched closer last year when the adjacent Rimrock Rose Ranch was purchased by the nonprofit Wilderness Land Trust thanks to a contribution from the Wyss Foundation.
During his time in New Mexico, Zinke also conducted a series of private stakeholder meetings linked to a nationwide review of 27 monuments, including the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument near Las Cruces and the Rio Grande del Norte monument outside of Taos. It’s not clear when Zinke will issue his recommendations.